The Chinese migrated to Sarawak since before the second World War. Their migration occurred in stages, with one dialect group arriving after the other, bringing with them their skills and expertise that contributed immensely to the growth of Sarawak and the local economy, through rice farming, trading and many more.
They also brought with them their traditional cuisines, which have stood the test of time and are enjoyed by people from all walks of life here in Sarawak. Here we list some of those iconic dishes:
1. Lei Cha (Hakka)
Hakka is one the largest Chinese dialect groups in Sarawak. Their heritage is still kept intact in the old town of Siniawan, where some of them still speak fluent Hopoh Hakka and prepare traditional Hakka cuisine just like their Taiwanese counterparts.
One of the most famous dishes brought by the Hakka Chinese to Sarawak is Lei Cha. Translated to English, Lei Cha means ‘thunder tea rice’. The name is derived from the process of making this dish, which includes the “thunderous” pounding of its ingredients.
Traditionally Chinese and was once consumed only by the poor, Lei Cha is enjoyed today by Sarawakians from all walks of life, especially among the health-conscious. This healthy, all-vegetable, nuts-and-grains dish consists rice, toasted peanuts, and different kinds of vegetables. Though the ingredients may vary, Lei Cha is traditionally made up of nine items, including rice, soup and seven types of vegetables and nuts-based toppings. The dish can be eaten at any time of the day, even though traditionally it was consumed by the Hakka people on the seventh day of the Lunar New Year.
2. Mee Sua (Foochow)
Sibu’s Foochow community stepped foot on Sarawakian soil in 1901 in a large-scale migration from China to Sibu, led by Chinese Revolutionary leader Wong Nai Siong. They have since contributed immensely to Sibu’s growth into one of Sarawak’s most prominent tows.
The Foochow people also brought with them some of their traditional cuisines, which have become part and parcel of Sarawakian food culture today. One of those iconic Foochow foods is Mee Sua (long-life noodles) – a long thin noodle made from just wheat flour and salt and is typically served on birthdays and other special occasions.
Although its production has been made more efficient using modern machinery, a handful of Mee Sua producers still make traditional hand-pulled Mee Sua. When in Sibu, make it a point to try their Red Wine Mee Sua, which is long-life noodle in a red wine broth and comes with chicken and hard-boiled egg. But Mee Sua is not only available exclusively in Sibu. You can also find it in Kuching, Miri, Bintulu, Sarikei and many other places throughout Sarawak, although Sibu’s Mee Sua is as authentic as it gets.
3. Pak Lo Ngap (Teochew)
Sarawak’s Teochew community originated from the Shantou seaport in Guangdong Province of China. They sailed to Kuching on invitation from Rajah Brooke to start an agricultural settlement here. The Teochew of Sarawak are primarily business owners that operate grocery stores and other small businesses.
The Teochew people of Sarawak are known for a number of delicious dishes such as kway chap (rice sheets in herbal pork soup). Another one of their absolute must-try dishes is Pak Lo Ngap, which is essentially duck braised in a sweet and fragrant five spice, soy sauce and rock sugar braising liquid. The duck is braised over several hours until the meat becomes tender and the flavours permeate into the duck to create an absolutely delicious dish.
Today, some shops selling this dish also offer Pak Lo Chicken or Pak Lo Pork, with a side of Pak Lo egg, if duck is not really something you’re into. And they’re just as good!
4. Hainanese Chicken Rice (Hainanese)
The Hainanese arrived at the shores of Sarawak later than the other Chinese dialects. During this time, businesses were mostly already run by other ethnics. Therefore, the Hainanese had to settle with becoming helpers of officers during the Colonial rule and doing electrical works.
Over time, they became very good at making coffee, kaya and the Chinese style curry many Sarawakians grew to love. And they started selling these in push carts at first before eventually setting up coffee shops along Carpenter Street and selling them there.
But there’s one dish that’s more iconic than the coffee, kaya, and curry, and that’s the famous Hainanese Chicken Rice. It’s a simple dish that is an adaptation of the Hainanese dish Wenchang Chicken and comprises poached chicken (although many call it steamed chicken), flavoured rice and cucumber slices, served with a special chilli dip, thick soy and soup.
Today, one can find roasted or fried chicken rice in most shops in Sarawak, but none of these are as good as the original Hainanese Chicken Rice.
5. Lor Bak (Hokkien)
The Hokkien were among the earliest settlers in Kuching and were mostly businessmen who occupied the urban areas. Many of them stayed near the Tua Pek Kong temple and ran most of the trading companies in Kuching.
Like the other Chinese dialects in Sarawak, the Hokkien also have their signature food. One is Hokkien Mee, which is more popular in KL and Penang than it is in Sarawak.
A more popular Hokkien dish in Sarawak is Lor Bak or Ngo Hiang. It is essentially meat roll consisting minced pork, shrimp, and some vegetables, seasoned with five spice powder and wrapped in thin tofu skin then deep-fried.
Crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside, Lor Bak is traditionally eaten as a celebratory dish, although it is widely available today in restaurants and cafés and is eaten as is or as part of a lunch or dinner meal.
Dip it in chilli sambal or chilli sauce for extra kick.
6. Henghua Noodle (Henghua)
The Henghua are among the smallest Chinese dialect groups in Sarawak and were mostly fishermen. Those who lived in the more urban areas were initially rickshaw paddlers. But after the second world war, some Henghua folks got into the business of trading bicycles and spare parts.
Where cuisine is concerned, the Henghua of Sarawak are largely known for their Henghua Noodle. It is a very simple dish of rice noodles braised in a clear soup base, with some meat, seafood and vegetable added in. The dish is seasoned with just salt and light soy (some add MSG, but this is optional).
Henghua Noodle is light but satisfying and is perfect at any time of the day. It is not as widely sold as Kolo Mee or Laksa Sarawak for example, but you can find it at some of the coffee shops here.
7. Char Siu Bao (Cantonese)
Like the Henghua, the Cantonese is also among the smallest dialect groups in Sarawak. Their arrival in Sarawak happened rather early, primarily during the opium war in China. Business-wise, they most owned grocery stores, sold shoes, repaired watches, and became goldsmiths.
Culinary-wise, despite their small population here in Sarawak, their dishes are among the most highly sought after. There’s Cantonese Noodle, Xiao Long Bao (soup dumpling), Lo Bak Go (turnip cake), egg tart and a whole lot more! But among the most consumed Cantonese food in Sarawak is Char Siu Bao.
Char Siu Bao is simply fluffy white bun filled with delicious barbecue pork filling (char siu). The bun is steamed and is soft to the bite, while the filling is juicy, sweet, and savoury all at once. It’s a humble little morsel that offers an explosion of flavour in your mouth with every bite.
There you have it – some of the most iconic Chinese food of the different dialect groups you can find here in Sarawak. If you haven’t tried any of them, make a point to do so on your next trip to the Land of the Hornbills!